Spain's ruling Socialists defeated in Catalonia
Voters hammered Spain's ruling Socialists over a biting economic crisis Sunday, turfing them from power in Catalonia in a bad omen for national elections scheduled for 2012.
The result was a blow to the central government of Prime Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero, battling market fears Spain could follow Greece and Ireland in seeking a humiliating EU bailout.
With 99.9 percent of ballots tallied, Catalans gave 62 seats to a moderate nationalist party, the Convergence and Union, six short of an outright majority in the 135-seat parliament, and just 28 to the Catalan Socialist Party.
It is the worst result in the 32-year history of the Catalan Socialist Party, which has ruled the wealthy northeastern region since 2003.
After the results were announced Jose Montilla announced that he would step down as the head of the party.
"Catalans have voted for change. This could be the beginning of a change that will come to the rest of Spain," said the secretary general of the conservative Popular Party, the main opposition party at the national level.
The Popular Party's lead over the Socialist Party at the national level has widened over the past year as Spain's economic woes have dragged on.
Spain's economy was hard hit by the bursting of a massive property bubble and the global economic crisis in 2008 and 2009. It is now suffering an unemployment rate of almost 20 percent and recorded zero economic growth in the third quarter.
In response to the crisis, the central government has introduced tough but unpopular austerity measures and labour reforms.
Zapatero has not yet declared if he will stand as the party's candidate for a third consecutive term in general elections scheduled for early 2012.
Catalonia, home to around seven million of Spain's population of some 47 million, has long accounted for the biggest share of its gross domestic product.
But in 2009 Madrid for the first time accounted for the biggest share of Spanish economic output, 18.71 percent, just ahead of Catalonia's 18.68 percent, said a report this year by Spanish think tank, Funcas.
Being overtaken by Madrid hurt regional pride in Catalonia, where a sizeable minority would like to see the region, which has its own language and distinct culture, break away from Spain.
At the same time, output by the Catalan economy, built on small- and medium-sized businesses, dropped 4.7 percent last year according to Funcas, compared to decline of 3.8 percent for Spain as a whole.
The region, which boasts a bigger budget that Chile's, also pushed up its direct and indirect debt by 24.2 percent over a year to 29.5 billion euros as of the end of June.
A recent poll by the CEO institute showed that unemployment was the main concern for 40 percent of Catalans.
The moderate nationalist CiU, which held power for 23 years until 2003, is also benefiting from anger over changes to a charter approved by the Spanish parliament in 2006 and which gave Catalonia sweeping powers.
Spain's Constitutional Court in June struck down several articles of the charter that expanded the already significant powers of self rule of the Catalan government, sparking mass protests in the region.
Some 5.4 million people were eligible to cast ballots at 2,721 polling stations. Turnout was 6o percent, higher than had been expected.
© 2010 AFP